The world’s a pretty gloomy place at the moment…and not just for people who read my Medium articles.
So I thought I’d do something a little different for what I just noticed is my 501st piece on Medium and write about 10 songs that always make me smile.
However the world seems to you today, I hope a few minutes silliness will give you a smile or two along the way…
“The Streak” — Ray Stevens
Ray Stevens is the grand-daddy when it comes to writing songs to make people smile, with a track record stretching back to the 1950s.
Although he’s written some wonderful songs with serious messages…not least the Grammy-winning “Everything Is Beautiful”… Ray Stevens made his name writing and performing comedy records.
His eclectic comedy catalogue includes songs like “Bridget The Midget”, “Gitarzan” and a version of Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” performed in the style of a clucking chicken (a surprise 1977 Top 40 hit in both the UK and the US).
But Ray Stevens’ biggest hit of all in terms of chart performance was “The Streak”, a 1974 Number One in the US, the UK and many other countries around the world.
If you’re too young to remember, streaking was a craze in the early 1970s whereby people removed all their clothes and ran around in public. I’m still not sure why, but I blame the 1960s…
In “The Streak”, Ray Stevens plays a middle aged man being interviewed by a journalist who’s reporting live from events where there had been reports of streaking. Ray Stevens tells the reporter what he saw and weaves in the conversations he had during the incident itself with his wife, Ethel.
Despite the subject matter, this being the 1970s and the BBC having some pretty strict standards of broadcasting decency, the song itself is in no sense unseemly…which actually makes it funnier. Sometimes deadpan is the way to go…
Here’s Ray Stevens with the wonderfully anarchic “The Streak”…and if you don’t know this song, stay tuned for the twist in the tale at the end…that section always makes me smile…
“Halfway Down The Stairs” — Robin The Frog
Sometimes songs make me smile because they’re funny. Sometimes they make me smile because they’re sweet. “Halfway Down The Stairs” falls into the second category.
“Halfway Down The Stairs” was very much an antidote to world events when it came out in 1977. I was only young, but I remember widespread industrial unrest, political discord and British society starting to tear itself apart, something it arguably has yet to recover from.
1977 was the year “Pretty Vacant” was released. The Clash released their first album that year too. People were angry…not just record buyers.
But somehow, it was also the year that one of the UK’s best-selling singles was Robin The Frog from The Muppet Show (Kermit’s nephew) half-singing a “nonsense poem” Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne had written in 1924…let’s just say 1977 was a year of contrasts…
Halfway down the stairs
Is the stair where I sit
There isn’t any other stair
Quite like it
It’s not at the bottom
It’s not at the top
So this is the stair
Where I always stop
While it’s not the only time a green foam frog puppet has made a record, “Halfway Down The Stairs” is definitely the most commercially successful record by an amphibian, foam or otherwise, reaching Number 7 in the UK charts.
This is such a sweet song, it always makes me smile…
“Wooly Bully” — Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs
While we’re on the subject of nonsense songs, there aren’t many records to make the upper reaches of the charts which have been quite as nonsensical as “Wooly Bully”.
It sold over three million copies in 1965 despite the fact that nobody knew what it was about…including, I suspect Sam the Sham and his colleagues…and reached Number Two in the Billboard Hot 100.
If anything, the video is even more astonishing than the song itself. I’m not sure it could be made today as there’s more cultural appropriation going on there than you can shake a stick at…and I’m still not sure exactly what the ladies standing perfectly still right through the video are there for.
From top to bottom, the whole thing is just incredibly silly. But silly and popular is a rare combination and the ridiculousness of it all means “Wooly Bully” always makes me smile when it comes on the radio…
“Dude Looks Like A Lady” — Aerosmith
To be fair, the song itself isn’t played for laughs. However anyone who’s seen the movie Mrs Doubtfire will remember the iconic scene with the late Robin Williams grooving around the house, doing the housework to the backing of “Dude Looks Like A Lady”.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Robin Williams dresses up as a women to get the job of a nanny to his ex-wife, Sally Field, so he can keep seeing his kids. He takes on the character of Mrs Doubtfire, a “lady of a certain age” whose old-country mannerisms and beliefs persuade Sally Field that she/he is exactly the right person to look after her children while she’s busy at work.
At various points, Sally Field’s character vents about her ex-husband without realising he’s standing right in front of her. And sparks start to fly when Sally Field’s new beau, a suave and sophisticated Piers Brosnan, comes on the scene.
Mrs Doubtfire is a very funny movie and I’m a big Robin Williams fan generally. But if you haven’t seen Robin Williams play air guitar with a broom to the backing of Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady”, you haven’t seen air guitar as it should be done.
Every time I hear Aerosmith I think of this scene and smile…
“I Am The Very Model Of The Modern Major General” — Gilbert and Sullivan
I’m not much one for opera…although purists might say that wouldn’t prevent me from liking Gilbert and Sullivan —opera can be a very snobby world…but their comic operas were the talk of the town in the late 1800s.
Because they were telling fictional stories about imaginary lands, Gilbert and Sullivan could get away with criticising and mocking members of the Victorian elite in their operettas without repercussion.
I got to know Gilbert and Sullivan at school. Every other year our annual school play was a Gilbert and Sullivan performance (in the alternate years it was a Shakespeare play). Apart from my geography lessons, which I adored, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas every other year was all I looked forward to at a school I hated.
I never really trod the boards myself. My teachers said I had a dreadful voice and my only stage appearance was being selected purely because I was the tallest boy in the class and they needed someone to play a quick cameo of “an adult”. I was told just to mime along as the other kids around me sang “properly”.
But I did work as a stagehand, which meant I got to hang out at rehearsals and had to learn the scripts and the songs because we had to organise our props and scenery changes around them.
“I Am The Very Model Of The Modern Major General” had me hooked straight away. Wonderful music, of course, but the tongue-twisting lyrics had me in stitches. I remember thinking how cool it would be to write a song as clever as this one, not that I ever have.
Who wouldn’t want to come up with lyrics like…
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
About binomial theorem, I’m teeming with a lot o’ news
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse
Even at face value, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are lots of fun. The quality of the songwriting, and the jokes and asides which would have had Victorian audiences in stitches even if they’re not immediately obvious to us today, always makes me smile.
Here’s the English National Opera’s version of “I Am The Very Model Of The Modern Major General” to give you a chuckle…
“D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” — Billy Connolly
A parody of the Tammy Wynette song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (never has punctuation played a greater part in minimising the chances of a lawsuit…), Scottish comedian Billy Connolly took this song to Number One in the UK charts in 1975.
At the time an edgy and notoriously foul-mouthed comedian, Billy Connolly morphed into a national treasure as he got older and now boasts a knighthood from the Queen alongside his many honours for work on stage and screen.
As a fellow Glaswegian, I love Billy Connolly. He’s a fair bit older than me, but I recognise the Glasgow of my parents and grandparents in his stories, and identify with the deeply satirical humour we Glaswegians use as a cloak for our feelings.
Tammy Wynette’s similarly titled song was about parents spelling out words they didn’t want their children to hear…a tried and trusted method until your children learn how to spell…
In Billy Connolly’s case, he doesn’t want his dog to know where they’re going, so he spells out words like “v-e-t” to avoid causing a ruckus.
Of course, it all goes badly wrong in the end, and after a chaotic visit to the vet and a massive argument with his wife, he decides it’s time for a “d-i-v-o-r-c-e”…
You don’t need to come from Glasgow to smile at this song, but if you are, I think it’s somehow even funnier with Billy Connolly, as ever, tapping right into the heart of the Glaswegian psyche…(and don’t worry about Billy Connolly’s foul-mouthed reputation, a couple of strategic “bleeps” apart there’s nothing in this song that couldn’t be broadcast on the BBC back in the 1970s)
“MMMBop” — Hanson
“MMMBop” isn’t funny in any sense, but it always puts a smile on my face. It’s got the essence of a warm and carefree summer’s day about it even though I have no idea what it’s about.
The three Hanson brothers were just kids when they recorded “MMMBop” but it went to Number One around the world in 1997 and to this day it’s the song they’re best-known for.
I always feel “MMMBop” is a ray of welcome sunshine piercing the dark, threatening clouds to let us know the storm has passed overhead and the world will soon be alright again.
1997 wasn’t the greatest of years for me personally, but on the plus side I did get to watch a lot of MTV on my own. And “MMMBop” coming on never failed to make me smile and feel better about the world…
“Sexy And I Know It” — LMFAO
This is a very recent song compared to the others on this list. LMFAO (if you don’t know what that stands for, you’ll need to look it up because I’m not telling you here) really made me laugh when they came out with “Sexy And I Know It” in 2011.
The song itself is a mickey-take of the self-centred big-head which, knowingly or not, is often a feature of music videos.
But the joke really ratchets up with the music video…and thinking of that video always lifts my mood and makes me smile, no matter what’s happened that day.
And in a rare move for a modern music video, the women all keep their clothes on in this one and it’s the guys who get down to the essentials for a change.
Unlike most novelty or comedy songs, where the music is distinctly secondary to the story being told, even with entirely different lyrics “Sexy And I Know It” would still be a great tune, with hooks and drops a-plenty.
But nobody who takes themselves too seriously could star in this music video, and that’s what makes me smile…(very slightly NSFW video, but perfectly acceptable for mainstream broadcasters to show in its entirety, so nothing too outrageous…but if you’re watching this around other people, you have been warned)
“Let’s Do It (The Ballad of Barry and Freda)” — Victoria Wood
The late Victoria Wood was a much-loved feature of British television for many years. A comedian and actor, music also played a major role in her shows, accompanying herself on the piano as she blasted out a songs about life’s comic misadventures.
Victoria Wood was at her funniest when lampooning the mundanity of British suburban life…a joyless life of order, duty and compliance where there are always doilies on the table whenever someone comes round for tea.
Nowhere does she do that better than in “Let’s Do It”…the story of a long-married suburban couple, Barry and Freda. Tonight Freda is feeling a bit amorous, while Barry is having none of it and clearly finds the whole business somewhat unseemly.
I’m not sure quite how funny this song is to a non-British audience, because there are so many cultural references wound up in this triumphant celebration of a dull suburban life…but equally, if you want an insight into British culture, you could do a lot worse than track down all the cultural references Victoria Wood makes “Let’s Do It”, then you might understand us a lot better.
Victoria Wood passed away a few years ago but her legacy will last for ever thanks to her tale of one quiet night in Barry and Freda’s house…
“Song Of The Australian Outlaw” — Rambling Syd Rumpo (Kenneth Williams)
Kenneth Williams was a fixture of British comedy from the 1950s through to the 1980s. He started on the stage in serious roles, but it was his talent for comedy and funny voices which brought him success, initially on radio, and later on film and TV.
I especially like his performances in the character of Rambling Syd Rumpo, one of many roles he played in the groundbreaking…and very funny…BBC radio comedy series Round The Horne.
The show’s name was a reference to its compare, Kenneth Horne, who introduced each week’s series of anarchic performances it the straight-faced style of a 1950s BBC continuity announcer…which can’t have been easy as both the writing and performing was brilliantly funny.
At some point in the show Kenneth Horne would say, “and now a song…” before introducing Kenneth Williams in character as Rambling Syd Rumpo.
Syd was a parody of an old-style folk singer who would launch into a long, innuendo-ridden explanation of the back-story to the song he was about to sing before clearly his throat loudly and launching into his performance.
Rambling Syd Rumpo’s songs were written by Round The Horne scriptwriters (and British comedy writing stalwarts) Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Typically they’d take a traditional folk tune and replace the lyrics with a range of suggestive double-ententres for Kenneth Williams to perform in character.
I especially like Barry Took and Marty Feldman’s writing for Round The Horne because at the time the rules about what you could say and what you couldn’t say on the BBC were extremely tight. The artistry of Barry Took and Marty Feldman took sketches on Round The Horne into areas where nobody else could venture.
They got away with it because they never said anything that was expressly forbidden, and their use of innuendo and double-entendre was so skilful that before one of the BBC bosses could complain about anything they’d written they’d have to confess to being depraved enough themselves to know what the writers were alluding to in the first place.
I loved that about Barry Took and Marty Feldman’s writing…not only was it a double-ententre, it was also a double-bind for BBC executives.
All Rambling Syd’s songs make me smile.
Barry Took and Marty Feldman invented words that sound indecent even though they’re either entirely fictitious. And they took perfectly acceptable words and used them out of context…the perfectly innocent archaeological term “artefact”, for example, has never acquired a more unseemly tone than it did in the hands of Barry Took, Marty Feldman and Kenneth Williams.
The video below is from an album of songs Kenneth Williams recorded in the character of Rambling Syd Rumpo a few years after Round The Horne came to an end. I’ve chosen “The Song Of The Australian Outlaw” mainly on the strength of its lugubrious introduction, which contains this wonderful piece of comic misdirection…
Tonight, I shall have great pleasure…
But first, a song…
I hope you enjoyed this trip some songs and videos which always make me smile. Hopefully it’s given you a chuckle somewhere along the way too…